Books and Book Chapters

Putting Islam to Work:  Education, Politics, and Religious Transformation in Egypt (Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1998)


“In what amounts to a powerful argument for complexity over parsimony, Starrett challenges us to rethink basic assumptions, not only about the nature of political and religious contestation in Egypt, but about the reigning paradigms within which they are conventionally analyzed. Readers. . .cannot but be struck by the keen intelligence, subtlety, and insight that pervade Starrett’s book.” Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, Political Science Quarterly

“Unlike most of the prevailing literature on this issue, Putting Islam to Work offers refreshing, innovative, and provocative insights and analyses.” Nadje Al-Ali, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“Starrett’s provocative discussion of the Egyptian case provides a framework for analyzing religious manifestations of modernity which reaches far beyond the confines of religious schooling, Egypt, and, indeed, Islam.” Robert Launay, American Ethnologist

“Starrett has cleared new analytical ground on which unorthodox and critically disorienting approaches to Islam can be developed. . . . Those still looking for new frameworks of ethnographic theory (and new methodologies for ethnographic practice) will find a wealth of them in Starrett’s book. Putting Islam to Work contributes to an already vibrant literature on alternative forms of modernity . . . and it will serve as a practical guide to anthropologists who must work in settings defined not only by the peculiarities of place, but by historical processes . . . that are nowadays experienced, and can be apprehended analytically, only by way of mass mediation.” Andrew Shryock, American Anthropologist

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Eleanor Abdella Doumato and Gregory Starrett, editors. Teaching Islam:  Textbooks and Religion in the Middle East.  (Boulder, CO and London: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007)




“An important contribution to both the sociology of education in the Middle East and to the wider academic discourse on the dynamics of religion and identity in the region…. The editors are to be congratulated for producing an illuminating and very well-organized
volume.”—Erik S. Ohlander, MESA Bulletin

“This is an important book…. The contributions here provide an interesting perspective on the dynamics of statecraft, religiously based challenges to local regimes, and contemporary
struggles to define legitimate forms of religious expression and practice.”—Fida Adely, International Journal of Middle East Studies

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American University in Cairo Press sells the edition available in the Middle East,
retitled Islam and Textbooks in the Middle East: Comparing Curricula:

Or, if you want to pay in rupees, buy the Indian version with the much prettier cover at:





Chapters in Edited Volumes:

 Fida Adeley and Gregory Starrett, “Schools, Skills, and Morals in the Contemporary Middle East,” Chapter 21 in Bradley A. U. Levinson and Mica Pollock, eds, A Companion to the Anthropology of Education (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 349-367.

EXCERPT:  “This chapter reviews anthropological literature on religious education in the Middle
East, and discusses local moral debates about the proper form and content of contemporary schooling. We will examine some historical transformations in how both political elites and the small but growing ranks of the educated middle classes have thought about the nature of religious knowledge, as well as the impact of this process on public education projects that emerged in the late nineteenth century. We examine the role of state schools in  producing and transmitting competing moral narratives, and in struggles over religious authority. A review of the literature points to the limits of state efforts to capture a position of moral authority, despite the cooptation of religious institutions and ideas by state actors. The anthropology of education and religion in the Middle  East has been particularly illuminating in this respect, pointing to new conceptions of faith and unexpected transformations in religious traditions put into motion by contemporary schooling.”

See the  Levinson and Pollock Table of Contents

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Gregory Starrett, “Institutionalizing Charisma: Comparative Perspectives on the Promise of Higher Education,” in Christopher Davidson and Peter Mackenzie Smith, eds., University Education in the GCC States: Alternative Approaches to Building Economies, Societies and Nations. London: Saqi Books, 2009, pp. 73-91.

EXCERPT:   “For more than a century now, public discussion of education in the Middle East has been marked by two opposite idioms: that of hope and transformation, and that of crisis and failure.  These idioms tend not to follow one another cyclically as new and improved educational programs are implemented successfully and then become outmoded with time, the sort of growth-and-decay model Ibn Khaldun might have outlined had he worked for an education ministry.  Instead, they persist . . .as binary alternatives, both expressing and generating nearly constant anxiety and dissatisfaction with the current state of education, no matter what it looks like.  The discourse of crisis and failure accuses schools, along with the whole of the educational establishment, of inefficiency, mismanagement, willful disregard of the public good, and misdirection of effort.  Schools are accused either of being hopelessly tradition-bound and out of step with the times; or, conversely, of bending to every new fad and fashion, habitually failing to find “what works” for students, for businesses, for sponsors, and for society at large.  In either case, schools never seem quite capable of providing an appropriate body of knowledge and skills to their students (or their “products,” in the words of contemporary planners), or appropriate “products” to the market.

The discourse of hope feeds on the discourse of failure by promising that just one more set
of modifications–training more science and math teachers, or providing more or less classroom time for religion, or writing new history textbooks, or more emphasis on music and art, or defunding music and art programs in favor of engineering and business management, or better assessment of student learning, or regional quality assurance programs, or more emphasis on faculty research with better laboratories, or more emphasis on student research and foreign study, or better critical thinking skills–will create . . . .both citizens and nations able to do something political leaders call “competing in the knowledge-based global economy of the twenty-first century.””

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Gregory Starrett, “When  Theory is Data:  Coming to Terms with ‘Culture’ as a Way of Life,” chapter 12 in Melissa J. Brown, ed., Explaining  Culture Scientifically (University of Washington Press, 2008).

EXCERPT:  “If concepts like culture. . .[have become so] successful. . .that we have lost control over their use, we should recognize this as an interesting anthropological problem in itself.  It is what these concepts were designed to do
(for how to spread enlightenment without spreading enlightening concepts?)  What does it mean for anthropology when our analytical vocabulary is fastened onto by people who deploy it to build their
own institutions, goals, understandings, and experiences of the world?  Can we use these concepts to understand institutions organized around these concepts themselves?  In exploring this issue, I will use evidence from the Middle East to look at the careers of
two cultural objects:  the practice of mass popular schooling, and the idea of “function.”  The spread of the idea and the transformation of local and national societies wrought by schooling were parts of an integrated process. . . . I will argue that contemporary unease about the concept of culture flows from the fact that life and thought among the global middle classes have become so saturated with social science perspectives that we have lost sight of the fact that these perspectives are cultural ones, ones that we hold and use to help organize our own lives.”

See the Explaining Culture Table of Contents


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 Gregory Starrett, “Islam after Empire: Turkey and the Arab Middle East,” chapter 2 in Michael Feener, ed., Islam in World Cultures: Comparative Perspectives.  Santa Barbara, CA:  ABC-CLIO, 2004, pp. 41-74.

EXCERPT:  “God, the Qur’an says, is closer to you than your jugular vein (50:16). That immanent presence impels pious Muslims to think seriously about God’s intentions for individuals and for humanity as a whole, about his expectations of thought and conduct, passions and plans. Since the late eighteenth century, and increasingly in the years leading up to the twenty-first century, Islam’s place in people’s daily lives has been in a state of accelerating change. As are our own lives, the lives of Muslims around the world are increasingly defined by global markets, instant communication, changing family forms, and the continued pressures of economic inequality, the growth and decay of empires, and the specters of genocide and cultural dissolution. Because of the facts of geography and history, all these things are felt more keenly today in the Middle East than they are in the United States. But crisis can bring creativity, as it often does in periods of global integration, whether Greek or Arab, Mongol or Ottoman. The crisis of what we call “modernity” has meant, for Muslims, thinking more and more about the rights and responsibilities of common people—and not just of the traditional elites of wealth or education or political power—in forging, nurturing, and protecting Islamic society. This is the element of Islam in the contemporary Middle East that will be emphasized in this chapter.”

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Gregory Starrett, “Muslim Identities and the Great Chain of Buying,” in Dale F. Eickelman and Jon Anderson, eds., New Media and the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere, 2nd edition.  Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 2003, pp. 80-101.

EXCERPT:  “Among Muslim groups. . .technological and market-driven changes in information distribution have very diverse effects. It has been argued that . . .obsolescence has to some extent. . .begun to overtake traditionally trained indigenous religious intellectuals in urban areas of the Middle East as growing literacy rates, publishing, and changing discursive practices bring growing numbers of literate citizens into public debates on religious, social, and political questions. But for African-American Muslims, who have not experienced Islam in the context of comprehensive insititutional orthodoxies, issues of counter-hegemony currently so important in the Arab world. . .are often less significant than creating a Muslim identity in the first place through forming a community with its own body of knowledge and interpretive traditions. . . .For African-American Muslims, links to [the
market in intellectual commodities] are forged primarily at the household level, as religious media—particularly books and videotapes—are purchased with personal funds and shared with other community members in the mosque, which serves as a public forum where the use and interpretation of these commodities are negotiated. At the same time, the gradual construction of an inventory of communally held intellectual commodities and practices is shaped by multiple links to a wide range of non-Islamic media.”

See the New Media Table of Contents

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Gregory Starrett, “The Anthropology of Islam,” in  Steven Glazier, ed., Anthropology of Religion:  A Handbook.  Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press, 1997, pp.  279-303.

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Truth in advertising here: as perfectly brilliant and comprehensive as this review of the literature was when it was written in 1994 (a “very thorough discussion of virtually every important work produced on the subject in question” [American Anthropologist 100(1):206], which “raises the question of how one ‘religion’ can be localized and accommodated in so many different ways” [American Ethnologist 25(3):512]), it was getting yellow around the edges by the time the book was published in 1997, and it’s utterly out of date now. Anthropological research on Islam has experienced an extraordinary flowering over the last twenty years. More anthropologists are writing about Islam, and their work is becoming more and more sophisticated. The complication is that, as in every other field of endeavor, fashions come and go, and memories are very short. It’s always worth looking back at what were the engaging questions for a past generation, and comparing them to what excites us intellectually now.